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Reihan Salam's Argument for Alcohol "Prohibition Lite" Doesn't Hold Water

In Slate recently, Reihan Salam argued that as America eases up on the criminalization of marijuana use it ought to consider ramping up the war against booze ("Alcohol Taxes Should Be Tripled: The war on drugs has been a failure. But the war on booze deserves a second chance")It’s a bold argument to make, but it doesn’t go far enough. Salam states, that “[t]he fact that alcohol is more harmful to society than marijuana is a reason to regulate alcohol more stringently than we regulate marijuana. In other words, let’s ease up on marijuana Prohibition and ramp up good old-fashioned alcohol Prohibition.” But he fails to identify another class of products that is in virtually every home in America and arguably more dangerous than weed and ought to be taxed if not banned altogether: beds, mattresses, and pillows. These inherently dangerous and addictive products sent 742,100 people to the hospital in 2012 alone—far more than marijuana (marijuana use was listed in the notes of 375, 000 ER visits). Following in Reihan’s brave steps, I’m advocating that we institute a nationwide pillow prohibition.

Of course, that is a ridiculous idea, since we get many benefits from beds, mattresses, and pillows. But it’s no more ridiculous than Salam’s apparent suggestion that alcohol can only be put to harmful uses.

Furthermore, Salam’s argument rests on some serious fallacies and inaccuracies. He seems to believe that the only deciding factor in how much people drink is the price, despite a wealth of evidence that shows increasing taxes on alcohol and restricting availability does not save society from alcohol-related harms and is, in fact, likely to increase the overall cost to society. Not to mention that whole erosion-of-individual-freedom thing.

Salam’s argument is, indeed, very strange. So, is he pulling our leg? Apparently not. The inspiration for his recent article appears to be a recently released Pew survey that found that an increasing number of Americans favor legalizing marijuana and that 69 percent consider alcohol a greater threat to individuals’ health (though Salam incorrectly reported that 69 percent of respondents thought alcohol was a greater threat to society).

For Salam, “[t]he fact that alcohol is more harmful to society than marijuana” seems reason enough to increase regulation and taxes on alcohol. Since when does a majority of people believing something make it true or even desirable?

And as for the harm, what people believe can actually mislead. In another Pew poll, participants between 18-25 years old were asked if they believed people of their generation drink more alcohol than people their age drank 20 years ago. Sixty-nine percent responded that their generation drinks more—and all 69 percent of those respondents were 100 percent wrong. According to a 2013 survey by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the rate of drinking among young adults (12th graders through college) has significantly and steadily declined since 1980.

young drinking trend

Yet, even if drinking among some groups were to increase, that in itself is no reason to increase taxes on alcohol, a product the vast majority of consumers manage to use responsibly (almost 65 percent of American adults drink alcohol regularly).

But back to beds, mattresses, and pillows.

Just about every product (or any choice we make in life) has a certain measure of risk; even drinking too much water can kill. Here are just a few consumer goods that send scores of people to emergency rooms every year:

Soaps and detergents: 43,834

Stairs, ramps, landings and floors: 2,793,122

Carpets and rugs: 159,444

Clothing: 326,898

Grooming devices: 47,020

But for Salam, alcohol represents a different kind of threat that could bring about societal ruin were it too cheap. He cites Russia, “where the pervasiveness of binge drinking contributes to an epidemic of cardiovascular disease and a death rate from fatal injuries that you’d normally see in wartime,” and Great Britain, whose “laissez-faire alcohol market” has led to an epidemic of binge drinking. The culprit? The availability of cheap alcohol. Yet, Salam here commits one of the most common logical fallacies: equating correlation with causation. That is, just because two statistics correlate with each other does not meant one caused the other. For example, though they correlate, it’s unlikely that number of films Nicolas Cage is in has anything to do with the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool (though the Wicker Man might have made a few people drown themselves).

“We shouldn’t be satisfied with keeping the per dollar cost of getting drunk where it is today. We should make it higher. Much higher,” says Salam. Fortunately, a society’s relationship with alcohol (and its rate of heart disease, violence, and literacy) isn’t based solely on the price of alcohol. For a counterexample to Salam’s fearmongering, just look at the nation with the absolute highest level of binge drinking: Austria, where the prevalence of “heavy episodic” drinking is 40.5 percent, while in the Russian Federation it is just 19.1 percent. Russia has the world’s ninth highest rate of deaths due to cardiovascular disease, while Austria ranks a healthy 150th out of 192 nations in that regard. Maybe it’s all that binge drinking? Or perhaps it’s more complicated.

Not only does Salam make a poor case about the harms of alcohol, but his solution is also lacking in evidence. The main crux of his argument is that we ought to increase the price of alcohol (through taxation and maintaining an expensive and burdensome regulatory scheme) in order to encourage people to lessen their drinking. However, research shows that alcohol price is not an effective means of achieving lower total consumption or reducing binge drinking. For more on this, I highly recommend reading Chris Snowdon’s "The Wages of Sin Taxes." Below is a chart from Snowdon’s report that shows the correlation between the cost of alcohol and consumption rates.snowdon fig 1

The Czech Republic and Luxembourg have both the highest priced alcohol and the highest rates of consumption in Europe. It’s worth noting that the nations with the higher levels of consumption do not have higher mortality rates attributable to alcohol-related diseases or injuries.snowdon fig 2

To bolster his argument for higher taxes on alcohol, Salam favorably cites former New York Mayor Bloomberg’s “successful” campaign against cigarette smoking, which increased the cost of cigarettes to the highest in the nation. And it is true that New York City’s adult smoking rate has fallen to 14 percent, well below the national average of 19.3 percent. But Salam doesn’t mention that New York is now the number-one market for smuggled cigarettes—which account for more than half of all cigarettes smoked in the state. And as Greg Beato (whom Salam credits for the idea of “prohibition lite”) noted in an email exchange:

What [Salam] elides from his argument is the fact that smoking rates for the city's lowest-income residents have not dropped as much as the overall rates. According to a study commissioned by the New York State Department of Health, "those with household incomes less than $25,000 had no statistically significant decline (26.9% to 24.3% based on the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System...)" So while the NYC cigarette tax poses a much greater financial burden on poor smokers than affluent ones, it presumably hasn't improved their health outcomes much.

And that brings us to the unintended consequences.

What might happen if we triple the taxes on alcohol? The possibility of a black market or an increase in cheap home-made alcohol would be very real. But there’s also the high likelihood that people would end up spending a greater portion of their income on alcohol—leaving them poorer overall. Another likely scenario is that heavy drinkers will move to cheaper or different products. As Snowdon points out:

There is evidence that a decline in cigarette consumption leads to an increase in marijuana use and obesity. A tax on alcopops in Australia led to people mixing their own drinks; a glaringly predictable outcome which had no effect on binge-drinking. At the softer end of the scale, a 2010 study found that soda taxes led to a moderate reduction in soft drink consumption which was “completely offset by increases in the consumption of other high-calories drinks. (p. 49)

Can alcohol be harmful? Sure. Like any product, it can cause harm if not used responsibly. But the solution to that possibility isn’t to make it more expensive. The real solution is to discover what the French, Italians, Czechs, Germans, and Finns are doing right. People in those countries consume more alcohol, but binge much less than Americans. Perhaps it has less to do with the cost of alcohol and more with the fact that in these other countries drinking alcohol is seen as part of a meal and not an event in and of itself. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that parents drink with their children at the dinner table, giving instruction and guidance on the appropriate levels of drinking.

Whatever their secret is, it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with taxes.

According to Salam, the problem is that “being drunk can be quite fun—until you wet the bed or start murdering people.” Too much information, perhaps?

Setting public policy based on the bad behavior of a small portion of the population that lacks self-control is never a good idea. Thankfully, the vast majority of Americans manage to drink responsibly without the government cutting them off and tucking them into one of those oh-so-dangerous beds.